Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries

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The new strength of Castile became evident in its ability to simultaneously create a huge overseas empire and achieve control in Europe. Columbus’s voyages, which aroused great excitement, brought disappointing results for the next two decades. Then Spain’s spectacular expansion in the Americas began. The most important events were the destruction of the Aztec empire in Mexico by Hernán Cortés from 1519 to 1521, the conquest of the Inca empire of Peru by Francisco Pizarro from 1532 to 1533. By the 1550s Spain controlled most of the South American continent, Central America, Florida, Cuba and, in Asia, the Philippine Islands. The empire was the means by which Christianity first spread across the Atlantic. It also brought enormous wealth to Spain when, after the 1530s, rich silver and gold mines were discovered.

Spain’s expansion in Europe began even before this wealth became available. Relying on brilliant diplomacy as well as on the military commanders and techniques forged in the war against Granada, King Ferdinand was chiefly responsible for making Spain into a major European power. The main opponent was France, both along the frontiers that separated the two states and also in Italy, where Aragón’s traditional interests were threatened by French efforts to dominate the peninsula. The struggle began with the successful campaign of 1495 to 1497 in southern Italy and continued intermittently for two decades, until Ferdinand’s death. By then Spain had won control of southern Italy, all Navarre south of the Pyrenees, and farther north, the regions of Cerdagne and Roussillon. Ferdinand also arranged strategic alliances with other royal houses hostile to France, marrying one daughter to the heir to the English throne and another, Joanna, to a Habsburg, Philip of Burgundy, later King Philip I of Castile. Isabella’s death in 1504 nearly upset the process of expansion as Castile’s crown passed to Joanna, who had become mentally deranged. Ferdinand, anxious to keep Castile united with Aragón, tried to gain the regency on the grounds of her madness. He was circumvented by Philip who, supported by the Castilian nobles, became ruler in his wife’s stead. In 1506, however, Philip died and Ferdinand again assumed sole direction of the two kingdoms. Ferdinand died in 1516 and was succeeded by his grandson, Charles, son of Joanna and Philip, who, as legal heir to both kingdoms became the first king of a united Spain.

B2 Charles V  The accession of Charles brought the Habsburg dynasty to the Spanish throne. Charles was the most powerful Christian monarch of his time. In addition to Spain and its possessions in Italy and the Americas, he inherited the Netherlands and Burgundy through his father. He also had strong ties to the Austrian branch of the Habsburg family and in 1519 was elected, as Charles V, Holy Roman emperor. Charles had been reared in Flanders, could not speak Spanish, and tried to rule Spain through foreign advisers. In 1520 and 1521, Spanish resentment against this precipitated a revolt in Toledo, Segovia, and other Castilian cities demanding greater municipal liberties. The revolt was defeated with help from the nobility; three centuries would pass before royal absolutism was again challenged in Spain. Even though Charles continued to spend much time outside Spain, he became increasingly popular with his Spanish subjects. This apparent paradox can be explained by Castile’s great prosperity during his reign, sparked partly by American treasure but also reflecting growth in manufacturing and in population, and by pride in Spain’s great imperial accomplishments. During Charles’s reign Cortés, Pizarro, and others explored and conquered the Americas. Ferdinand’s anti-French strategy was continued in a series of wars (1521-1529, 1535-1538, 1542-1544, 1551-1559) that made Spain a dominant power in northern as well as southern Italy. Charles led the Catholic attempts first to conciliate, then to suppress the Protestant Reformation sweeping northern Europe. In the south, he mounted expeditions against Tunis (1535) and Algiers (1541), defending the western Mediterranean against Turkish efforts to expand.

B3 Philip II  
In 1556 Charles relinquished the Spanish throne to his son, Philip II, who had served as regent during Charles’s many absences. As Philip’s reign began, tranquillity prevailed in Spain. The American empire was now fully consolidated, and unprecedented quantities of silver poured into Castile. The exhausting French wars were ended by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, and for the next four decades France was so divided by religious conflict as to be unable to challenge Spanish interests. So began Spain’s “Golden Age” of culture and art, which would continue for a century. In 1571 Spain took the lead in the Holy League, which defeated the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, permanently weakening Turkish maritime power. Nine years later, the death of King Henry of Portugal gave Philip, (through his mother) a strong claim to that throne. Rival claimants were overcome, and Portuguese resentment against foreign rule was softened through concessions. Since Portugal controlled territories in Asia, Africa, and Brazil, its union with Spain meant the creation of the largest and most far-flung empire in the world.

Still, troubles gradually accumulated. Philip had a zealous devotion to Roman Catholicism and to the preservation of absolute rule. This combination proved disastrous in the Low Countries. Philip’s persecution of Protestants and his attempts to rule the Netherlands as a province of Spain, without regard for its traditional rights, led to open revolt in 1566. This conflict continued for a half-century, draining Spanish resources. It also led to war with England. Under Queen Elizabeth I, England had become a Protestant power whose foreign policy included unofficial support for the Dutch rebels and for the English mariners who raided Spanish colonies and treasure fleets in the Americas. Philip sent a huge fleet against England in 1588, but the great Spanish Armada was defeated in the English Channel; most of the surviving ships were wrecked in a storm off the Hebrides. Meanwhile, the domestic situation was deteriorating. American treasure alone could not support Spain’s wars; taxation became oppressive, and the state defaulted on loans. Also upsetting to economic stability were the epidemics that swept Spain in the 1590s, significantly reducing the population. In addition, as Philip strengthened the Inquisition, intellectual life became narrower and less open to new currents of thought. At his death in 1598 Philip left a country that was declining domestically and internationally.

B4 Decline and Crisis  Philip III halted the campaigns against the Dutch and cut back Spain’s other foreign ventures. In 1609 he expelled some 250,000 Moriscos (Christianized Moors), further depopulating Spain and disrupting its economy. Philip IV, who succeeded to the throne after his father’s death in 1621, preferred culture to politics; Spain’s Golden Age reached its height during his reign. He allowed Gaspar de Guzmán, conde de Olivares, to run the government. Olivares sought to restore and even expand Spanish power abroad. He resumed the Dutch conflict and involved Spain in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which in turn led to war with France after 1635. At first generally successful abroad, Spain’s military effort could no longer be sustained at home. Olivares’s efforts to increase taxation and conscription led to revolt in 1640, first in Catalonia and then in Portugal. With the home front in chaos, Spain also began to fail abroad. Olivares was ousted, but the wars and revolutions his policies had helped engender haunted Spain for another three decades. Catalonia was recovered in 1652, but Dutch independence had to be recognized in 1648. Roussillon and Cerdagne were returned to France in 1659, and the independence of Portugal was finally accepted in 1668. Spain was weakened further by the rapid exhaustion of the American silver mines after 1640. Economically, politically, and even culturally, Spain entered a long period of decline. Its new ruler, Charles II, could not govern effectively because of physical and mental infirmities. Factional strife characterized Spain at home; lost wars typified it abroad.

At Charles’s death, the male line of the Spanish Habsburgs became extinct. Charles willed his throne to his grandnephew, Philip V, duke of Anjou, and grandson of the Bourbon King Louis XIV of France, who was the most powerful monarch of his time. Much of Europe viewed the Bourbon acquisition of Spain’s still vast territories with alarm, and thus favored the Habsburg claims to the throne, as represented by the younger son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. England, The Netherlands, Austria, Prussia, and several smaller countries formed a coalition against Louis XIV. This resulted in 1701 in the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1711 support of the Habsburg claimant also threatened to upset the European balance of power when, as Charles VI, he became Holy Roman emperor after the death of his brother and inherited the Austrian domains. A compromise was reached in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) whereby most of Spain’s remaining European possessions went to Austria, but the Bourbon claimant was recognized as King Philip V of Spain and the overseas empire passed intact to him.

(From Encarta Encyclopedia)

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